In thinking about how I should go about doing a conference season preview, I considered the following:
- I’ve watched very few non-MSU basketball games so far this season.
- I’m a big picture guy.
- I’m better at copying other people’s ideas than making up my own.
The natural conclusion of this thought process was to rip off the Big Ten Wonk’s tempo-free aerial. The idea is this: By plotting offensive points per possession vs. defensive points per possession, you can get a visual idea which teams are excelling on one or both ends of the basketball court on a tempo-free basis.
The aerial linked above is nice because it was based on conference-only data from last season, which more or less evened the playing field for the 11 teams in the conference. The problem with doing such an aerial at this point in the season, of course, is that the 11 teams have each played a unique nonconference schedule and the relative difficulty of those schedules has varied substantially. At the extremes, kenpom says Michigan has played the 9th toughest schedule in the land while Minnesota has played just the 258th toughest slate of opponents.
The solution–and the only (relatively minor) upgrade I’m making from the Big Ten Wonk’s old aerials–is to use the “adjusted” efficiency figures available from kenpom. The methodology looks at points scored per 100 possessions (i.e., points per possession times 100) adjusted for the offensive/defensive abilities of each team’s opponents and the impact of home court advantage. These adjustments should give us, in theory, an unbiased measure of Big Ten teams’ offensive and defensive performance to date and give us an idea what we should expect from each team heading into conference play.
So, without further ado, here’s the tempo-free aerial:
The goal for any basketball team is to be in the upper, right-hand quadrant of the scatterplot. Such a location reflects a combination of outstanding offense and defense. I’ve set the solid divider lines at roughly the level of the #50 team in the nation–right around the performance you need to compete for an at-large NCAA bid. It’s interesting to note that there’s no teams clearly in the bottom, right-hand corner (good offense, bad defense), although MSU is right at the dividing line defensively.
A number of teams, though, are trending toward good defense, bad offense. In fact, eight of the 11 Big Ten teams rank higher nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency than adjusted offensive efficiency. The exceptions are MSU, Michigan, and Northwestern. Two teams–Ohio State and Illinois–fall squarely in the upper, left-hand quadrant. They can guard but they can’t score.
I’ve inserted three diagonal, dashed lines to group the conference into four tiers. The placement of the lines is somewhat arbitrary, but reflects gaps in the datapoints as one moves from the upper, right-hand corner to the lower, left-hand corner.
Tier 1: Wisconsin (kenpom rating=4), Indiana (11), Michigan State (14)
These three teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference on a statistical basis, but they’ve done it in different ways. MSU has played phenomenal offense while playing good, but not great, defense. Wisconsin has done the opposite–ranking #1 in all the land in defensive efficiency, while playing pretty decent basketball on the offensive end. Indiana has shown more balance in their performance, ranking in the top 20 nationally on both ends of the floor.
On offense, all three teams have relied heavily on offensive rebounding. MSU ranks #1 nationally, Wisconsin #12, and IU #21 in offensive rebounding percentage. As the trio battles for conference supremacy, the ability to sustain their offensive rebounding performance against one another will be a key.
Wisconsin is an interesting case. Their tempo-free statistical rankings are superb, but they’ve barely scratched their ways back into the polls. Their high-profile results have been mixed: blown out by Duke, lost at home to Marquette, squeaked by Texas. But they’ve utterly dominated the other nine games on their schedule. Wisconsin will not lose many, if any, games against lower-quality teams in the conference. As always, they should not be taken lightly and are every bit the threat that MSU and IU are to win the regular season conference championship–despite what some in the mainstream media might say.
In fact, kenpom projects Wisconsin to finish at 16-2 in conference play, while IU goes 14-4 and MSU goes 13-5. Wisconsin has the advantage of not having to play at Breslin this season. Once again, the Big Ten scheduling gods seems to have it in for our Spartans. At least, it’s only a one-game deficit to overcome this season, rather than the two- or three-game disadvantage we seemingly faced ever since the conference went to the 16-game schedule.
Tier 2: Minnesota (31), Illinois (35), Ohio State (42)
Minnesota has been the surprise team of the nonconference season, going 10-2 under new coach Tubby Smith. The quality of the opposition hasn’t been all that great. The two losses were to the only two teams (Florida St. and UNLV) they’ve played that appear in kenpom’s top 100. But they’ve taken care of business against the lesser opposition they’ve played and the adjusted efficiency figures (which account for their weak schedule) say they’re in the top 70 nationally on both ends of the court. They’ve been particularly good on defense, ranking 10th in the nation in defensive turnover percentage. If they could go .500 in conference play and upset one of the big three in Minneapolis, an NCAA tournament bid is not out of the question.
Illinois and Ohio State have very similar profiles: They rank in the top 15 nationally on the defensive end and around 100th on the offensive end. Weber and Matta have both lost major league talent (Weber over the last two years combined; Matta all in one fell sweep), but they’ve obviously been able to teach the new guys how to play defense. I like Ohio State’s chances a little better than Illinois’ to become a top-notch contender by the end of the regular season. The Buckeyes are relying mainly on freshman and sophomores, while Illinois’ starters are juniors and seniors left over from the 2005/2006 teams. Ohio State’s players, therefore, have more room to improve on the offensive end as they gain experience. Both teams are good bets to make the Big Dance given their defensive aptitude and national reputations from the success they’ve had the last several seasons.
Tier 3: Penn State (71) and Purdue (83)
You could arguably lump these teams in with the Tier 2 teams, but the Nittany Lions and Boilermakes have been just a bit less effective both offensively and defensively than those teams. It will take more improvement and good fortune for these teams to get themselves to the Big Dance.
Penn State is one-dimensional on offense. Do-it-all star Geary Claxton is taking 31.2% of his team’s shots when he’s on the floor. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but Penn State will need to create more good looks for their 3-point shooters to be able to score points effectively. The good news is that they don’t turn the ball over much (17.6% of possessions), giving them more opportunities to shoot the ball.
Purdue is very young; their top six players by percentage of minutes played are freshmen and sophomores. They’re also apparently quite scrappy. Their two areas of strength are creating turnovers (#19 nationally) and gathering defensive rebounds (#23)–both areas where hustle plays an important role. The trick will be making enough shots to compete on a consistent basis.
Tier 4: Michigan (138), Iowa (153), and Northwestern (177)
The bottom group of teams contains two teams with new coaches and one team that seems awfully close to having a new coach. All three have fatal flaws.
When you consider the strength of the schedule they’ve played (Georgetown, Butler, Duke, UCLA), Michigan has actually been halfway decent on offense–largely on the strength of holding on to the ball and getting offensive rebounds. But they’ve shown almost no ability to play defense, allowing such juggernauts as Western Kentucky, Boston College, Harvard, and Central Michigan to score large amounts of points (on a tempo-free basis). Clearly, Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone is very much a work in progress. Michigan isn’t rebounding well defensively (as might be expected playing frequently in a zone) and isn’t creating any turnovers (as one would hope the 1-3-1 would).
Iowa, conversely, appears to be having a hard time picking up Todd Lickliter’s motion offense, as evidenced by a turnover rate of 27.5% (332nd in the nation). Even with all those turnovers, which tend to increase the number of possessions in a game by artificially shortening possessions, Iowa still ranks 326th in the nation in tempo. Clearly, they . . . play . . . really . . . deliberately.
Like Michigan, Northwestern isn’t all that bad on offense. They haven’t turned the ball over much (16.9%) and they’ve shot the ball quite well (eFG%=55.2%). Their Achilles’ heel is rebounding. They rank in the bottom 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. This has really hurt on the defensive end, as their opponents are shooting at a healthy 54.5 effective FG%.
It will take a not-so-minor miracle of any of these three teams to compete for a postseason berth of any kind.
So the big question is: Which team is the favorite to win the regular season conference crown? Out of the Big Three, I like Indiana’s chances the least. Eric Gordon is tremendously talented, but relying on any freshman to score bunches of points game in and game out will eventually catch up to any team. A key will be whether D.J. White can do enough to put IU over the top in games when Gordon is off a bit.
That leaves MSU and Wisconsin. I’m going to go with the homer pick here. Here’s my reasoning:
- While Wisconsin has always relied on defense over offense, they’ve always had that one big scoring threat to rely on in crunch time (Michael Finley, Devin Harris, Alondo Tucker). I’m not sure Trevon Hughes and Brian Butch can score enough for Wisconsin not to drop a few games where their opponent hits a few big three pointers.
- Michigan State’s offense is good enough to win big games on a consistent basis. They can score in the half-court offense (Neitzel, Suton). They can score in transition (Lucas, Morgan, Summers). And they have the depth to withstand both slugfests on the inside and high-paced games with the perimeter players playing at a high tempo (not to mention injuries). In a conference where defense dominates, the ability to score in multiple ways may help stave off upsets.
- Michigan State is hungry for a championship. It’s been seven years now since the last of the four consecutive Big Ten championships. The fan base wants a championship. The players want a championship (Senior Drew Neitzel, in particular). And Tom Izzo definitely wants a championship–and will pull out all the stops to make it happen.
My prediction: MSU goes 15-3 to beat out a 14-4 Wisconsin team and a 13-5 Indiana team for the Big Ten crown. The Badgers’ and Hoosiers’ numbers are somewhat superior to the Spartans’ at this point, but I think MSU may have a capacity to play at a more consistent level over the full 18 games of the conference season. And, of course, this is the SPARTANS Weblog.
Let’s get warmed up for my week-long absence with some reader feedback. What have I overlooked above? Which team do you like to finish above the expectations set by their nonconference statistics? How realistic are MSU’s chances to win the conference championship? What are the keys to doing so? What kind of tropical drinks should I imbibe while lounging at the pool? (Sorry, got distracted on that last one.)